By Thanksgiving, all hope seemed lost for the Cowboys. Dak Prescott looked like he might never throw a touchdown pass again. Dez Bryant played like he was heading toward retirement. The defense was Swiss, and the team had been blown out by twenty or more points in three consecutive weeks. Still, a little winning goes a long way: after stomping Washington and the Giants by a combined 44 points the past two weeks, the ‘Boys are currently 7-6. If they played in a weaker conference than the 2017 NFC, they’d be in the thick of the playoff hunt, probably in control of their own playoff destiny.
That’s not how it’s worked out, though, which means that for the Cowboys to ride their two consecutive strong performances into the postseason, they’re gonna need some help. The NFC playoff picture is complicated: the Eagles, Vikings, Rams, and Saints all sit atop their divisions with records of 9-4 or better. The Carolina Panthers also have a 9-4 record, but are trailing the Saints in terms of tiebreakers. The Falcons and the Seahawks are each a full game better than the Cowboys at 8-5, and the Lions and Packers are each tied with the Cowboys at 7-6. (The Arizona Cardinals, while not mathematically eliminated a 6-7, aren’t a threat to the Cowboys’ playoff hopes.) So if you’re watching scoreboards every Sunday looking to figure out who needs to win and who needs to lose for the Dallas to get a shot at postseason glory, there’s a lot to keep track of. Lucky for you scoreboard watchers, we’ve put together a handy guide for where your allegiances should lie each week.
First off, it doesn’t matter what happens with the division-leading Eagles. With eleven wins, it’s impossible for the Cowboys to catch them, so they can win by twenty or lose by a million—it’s not actually relevant until week 17, when they meet the Cowboys head-on. (That game does seem a lot easier now than it did Sunday, when the Eagles seemed destined to build the legend of MVP candidate Carson Wentz—before he tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of the team’s matchup against the Rams.) In fact, none of the Cowboys’ traditional NFC East rivals are relevant at this point, so if there was ever a time to add Nick Foles or Kirk Cousins to your fantasy roster without worrying that you’re betraying your team, it’s now.
This week, the Lions play the Chicago Bears, the Packers and the Panthers face off, the Saints take on the Jets, the Rams play the Seahawks, and the Falcons go to Tampa Bay to battle the Bucs—and the Cowboys, of course, have the Raiders.
Obviously, you need the Cowboys to win. Beyond that, a Lions loss will put them a game behind Dallas, which effectively eliminates them from this exercise. A Seahawks loss to the ascendant Rams would bring them even with the Cowboys, and the Falcons falling to the Bucs would do the same for the 2016 Super Bowl losers. All of those are relatively uncomplicated: This week, Cowboys fans are also Bears, Bucs, and Rams fans. (The sad news there is that the Bears are the Buccaneers both sit at 4-9.)
The Saints/Jets game doesn’t matter too much. Somebody is gonna win the NFC South, and right now it appears to be the Saints. However, at 9-4, the Saints could potentially miss the playoffs as a wildcard team, if they lose their next three games. That seems unlikely, but it’s technically possible. Don’t sweat it too much, but it’d keep a potential avenue to the playoffs open if the Saints lose, so root for the Jets this week, unless you have Alvin Kamera or Mark Ingram in fantasy.
It gets trickier when it comes to the Packers/Panthers game, as both of those teams are competing with the Cowboys for a potential wildcard spot. If the Packers lose, they fall a game behind the Cowboys, and aren’t a threat if Dallas wins out. Given the two teams’ recent history, it might sound nice to have them out of the way—but playoff math is weird, and it’s actually better for Dallas for the Panthers to stack an extra loss, and count on Green Bay dropping their game the next week against the Vikings.
The best case scenario: The Lions, Falcons, Seahawks, Saints, and probably the Packers all lose.
In week 16, the Cowboys host the Seahawks. That’s a tough matchup, but the ‘Boys will have to face a certain caliber of team if they stay in the race. So consider week 16 an early playoff game.
The good news is that even if every team that’s still in the playoff hunt wins the week before, the Cowboys’ playoff hopes are still alive—they just need more to happen for the team to make it.
The Packers play the Vikings on December 23 (a Saturday, which the NFL does sometimes around Christmas). The Vikings are one of the best teams in the NFL right now, and the Packers will be coming off a tough game against the Panthers. If the Packers beat Carolina in week 15, fans should really hope that the Vikings take this one, as the Packers are more likely to advance than the Cowboys are if they finish the season with the same record. If the Packers lose in week 15, it doesn’t really matter what happens here, so long as Dallas wins out.
Next up, the Panthers take on Tampa Bay. Regardless of what happened the week before, Cowboys fans would prefer that the Panthers lose this one, as they won’t have a wildcard slot secured just yet. But, again, the Bucs haven’t looked great, so don’t get your hopes up too high. This is why you were cheering for Green Bay the week before.
In Cincinnati, the Bengals host the Lions. This one only matters if the Lions win in week 15, but if they go into this game with the same record as the Cowboys, it’d be better for Dallas’s playoff hopes if the Lions lose.
There’s also another complicated one: the Saints play the Falcons. If both teams win in week 15, then you’re a Saints fan for the day—at that point, it’s better to hope that the Saints win and take the NFC South, so they’re no longer wildcard competition. The main reason that’s better is that the Saints have a matchup against the doomed Tampa Bay Bucs the following week. But if the Saints lose the previous week, the math gets wonky—it’s better that the Falcons win if the Panthers also lost in week 15, as that’ll turn the NFC South into a giant war of attrition that the Cowboys can sneak through, but it’s better that the Saints win if the Panthers won in week 15. See what we mean about wonky math?
The best case scenario: The Cowboys beat the Seahawks (duh), the Packers and Lions lose, the Panthers lose, and the Saints/Falcons game turns out well based on what happened in the NFC South in week 15.
Okay, you made it! It’s the end of the NFL season, and if the Cowboys won the past two weeks, and either the Falcons, Saints, or Panthers lost at least one game that wasn’t the Falcons/Saints matchup in week 16, then the Cowboys’ playoff hopes are still alive. There’s no scenario where the Cowboys can enter week 17 as a win-and-in team—they’ll still need help—but depending what happened the previous two weeks, they might not need a whole lot of it.
If the Lions and Packers each picked up at least one loss in either of the previous two weeks, then you don’t have to worry about what happens when the two teams go head-to-head. If only one of the teams lost, then you want that team to win against the other. If they’ve both won their last two games, then it doesn’t matter too much who wins this one, you’re rooting for a tie. (Good luck!)
The Falcons and Panthers also play each other in the final week of the season. For this one, it’s pretty complicated, and it depends on what happened in the previous two weeks, but you’re hoping that the team with the better record wins this game, ensuring that the other one doesn’t get in ahead of the Cowboys if they’re both looking at 10-6 records, since the Cowboys don’t have many tiebreakers against either team.
The Saints play the Bucs in week 17 too. If the Saints won their last two games, then you want them to lose this one—if they won them, then it doesn’t matter what happens here.
Finally, the Seahawks have the Cardinals to end the season. Because wildcard playoff seeding is weird, the teams’ various head-to-head records actually don’t matter much. This means that the Cowboys and Seahawks could each be 10-6, the Cowboys could have just beaten the Seahawks, and they’d still miss the playoffs if a few other things don’t go their way. Just to be safe, root for Arizona here if both teams are at 9-6 going into the final week of the regular season.
Best case scenario: Whichever team has the worse record between the Packers and Lions wins their matchup; whichever team has the better record between the Falcons and the Panthers wins that one, and the Saints and the Seahawks both lose, either out of necessity or spite.
The wrap up
Ultimately, this is not what Cowboys fans expected to worry about heading into the end of the 2017 season (We imagine the envisioned question was along the lines of “Will Dak be the MVP?” Sorry, y’all). In that way, 2017 has been a disappointment for fans in Dallas—but even after a truly dreadful mid-season slump, they’re still playing relevant football heading into the end of December, so you might as well consider that a win.